Rhetoric vs. Reality

When it comes to participation, the gap between rhetoric and reality yawns wide. How many of us have written project proposals peppered with phrases like ‘bottom up’, ‘self reliance’, ‘empowerment’, ‘citizen control’, and ‘local participation’ without fully grasping to what we were committing ourselves? While ‘participation’ has become fully and widely embedded in development speak, it has a long way to go in actual development work.

I suspect that many development practitioners assume they understand and ‘do’ participation because they get the meaning of the words and phrases associated with it and feel philosophically aligned with them. Most of us know that there are actual methodologies that have been developed and tested by others and written about in published papers and books. But, let’s be honest, how much of the development literature do practitioners actually read, and how much of what little we know do we actually put into practice?

The reality is, our actions in a community are constrained primarily by what our organizations consider their mission and core competencies, what our donors are willing to fund, and what we have time to do. Anything outside of these constraints just isn’t going to happen, so what good are truly participatory methodologies to us? How many development organizations are really ready to deal with local wishes once expressed, to deal with local knowledge once articulated, to use local resources once identified, to deal with local capability once mobilized, …in other words, to deal with local participation once invited?

Are we really interested in sharing power with (or releasing power in) the community? Are we operationally prepared to reverse the flows of information and accountability? Are our agendas and timelines, our people and processes, our standards and policies even capable of adjusting for the mess of self-mobilized, empowered, and initiative-taking stakeholders? I don’t think so. And that’s too bad. Talk is cheap. (Or in the case of writing project proposals, talk is lucrative.) Participation, on the other hand, is messy, slow, unpredictable, and rarely done. And yet, it is good practice. It is to our collective shame that we can’t more often match our rhetoric with the reality of our work.

Participation as a Spectrum

The gap is fairly easy to hide because participation isn’t a binary reality, but one with types and degrees. We just use the rhetoric associated with participation nearer to one end of the spectrum, while behaving according to participation nearer to the other end. Take for instance this simple four-element spectrum developed for a World Bank discussion paper†:

  1. Information-sharing: people are informed in order to facilitate collective individual action.
  2. Consultation: people are consulted and interact with an agency, which can then take account of their feedback.
  3. Decision-making: people have a decision-making role, which may be theirs exclusively, or joint with others, on specific issues of policy or project.
  4. Initiating action: people are proactive and able to take the initiative.

One can imagine how a project report might make it sound as if you were engaging people in the decision-making process as equal partners, that the community was helping to develop the plans, and participating in the activities, as well as the monitoring and evaluation of the project (level 3-4), when in reality the community development facilitators acted more in line with level 1-2, merely sharing information about the project in order to get ‘buy-in,’ exchanging food for work to ensure community involvement in the activities, and using focus group discussions to extract information from the community for the monitoring and evaluation work.

In his 2005 book “Ideas for Development”‡ Robert Chambers produces a more thorough treatment of participation as a spectrum that considers the objectives, the roles and relationships, the actions, and the ownership of the development process and the actors. I’ve reproduced this  table below.

I find this table helpful in that it gives us something to reflect on to see the gaps between our organizations’ rhetoric and reality. I suspect that most development practitioners have worked for organizations that aspire to be – and talk as if they were – operating at a degree of participation at the ‘partnership’ or ‘transformative’ level. But, I suspect that most of these organizations actually operate somewhere between the nominal and consultative levels.

What Facipulation Looks Like

Why do I feel so manipulated?

Facipulation is the act (intentional or not) of obscuring the gaps between the rhetoric and reality of participation. We facilitate meetings and processes in such a way as to get our preconceived ideas articulated, our preferred agenda adopted, our desired activities moved forward, …our needs met. And yes, this is at the expense of the communities’ ideas, preferred agendas, desired activities, and needs. Facipulation is not good practice.

I had planned to write here a series of cheeky “you know you’re a facipulator if…” statements, but the folks over at Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like have already done such a fine job of describing some typical facipulation techniques with ample cheek, I’m just going to refer you to them. SEAWL is written by two of the few development bloggers I follow; you can follow them on twitter @talesfromthehood and @shotgunshack. Check it out, have a good laugh, then do some navel gazing and have a good cry.


* As with all great terms, ‘facipulation’ has many inventors. I’ve been using the term for years falsely thinking I was the only one – I had even hoped with great naiveté that I would get credit for having coined this clever little mashup. But, I have discovered with some disappointment that its usage is already wide-spread. This fake dictionary entry is my own creation, but the word’s actual origin – that is who gets credit for its first use – is already lost in the soup of its popularity. The first usage I found was as a chapter title in a fairly obscure 1995 business book called Facilitating. It made its way into the urban dictionary in 2008. One of my favorite definitions was actually written by a self-described “ambiguity expert” (i.e. life coach) here. At any rate, so much for my presumed originality.

 † Bhatnager, B. and A.C. Williams (eds) (1992) Participatory Development and the World Bank: Potential Directions for Change, World Bank Discussion Papers 183, World Bank, Washington DC

‡ Chambers, Robert (2005) Ideas for Development, Earthscan, London, UK


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10 Comments on “fa⋅ci⋅pu⋅la⋅tion”

  1. June 6, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    Welcome back and thanks for continuing to highlight the reality/rhetoric divide. Chambers’ table is very helpful. See the participation ladder I pieced together and adapted from some others on a recent post, “Sorry but it’s not YOUR project”: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/04/27/not-your-project/

    • June 12, 2011 at 11:10 am #

      Jennifer, Thanks for the welcome back. I’ve read your piece that included a well articulated and framed participation ladder. This has got me thinking that maybe a lot of my readers haven’t seen participation ladders before. I think I’ll have to write a short post to introduce my readers to these. (I suspect that I have a lot of student or young-ish development professionals/volunteers for readers and they might appreciate this sort of academic introduction. We’ll see.

  2. June 12, 2011 at 3:40 am #

    “The reality is……..”

    From the refreshingly honest list of constraints given, one wonders if the resulting project actually has anything to do with the community concerned. Is any project then more than a realisation of a set of needs of the relevant organisation carrying out the project.?

    Indeed, it seems to me that one of the major relevant but unasked questions is: Does a community have a right not to be “developed” according to the needs and demands of outsiders.

    Looking at the “developed” world -it seems that development and (economic) progress may be the cause of more problems than they solve. True , “solving” the problems caused by development provides lots of opportunities for activities and incomes for people in the “developed” world -but do all these activities truly benefit the people in the communities concerned?

    How many problems in poor communities are actually the result of climate and (cultural and physical) environmental degradation caused by the economic system imposed by the “developed” communities in order to develop themselves? As highly organised (commercial) systems spread cancer like over the globe -what hiding place is left for people who wish to avoid such systems like the plague they may well be?

    What are the chances that “development” will actually benefit all -or only the few who can profit from it , while making the position of those who do not benefit (relatively) even worse than before?

    • June 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

      Trevor, you ask some thoughtful questions. In my experience, most projects make a strong effort to be participatory, but they just fall shorter than they aspire. That said, they are almost always more than a reflection of the outsiders’ needs. For instance, say you’ve got an NGO whose mission is to promote education. They have a conceptual model that values school construction and teacher education. Their donors are on board with this model and provide generously to work that fits this model. They also value getting things done rather quickly, opening a school from conception to ribbon cutting in a year or less. While recognizing that these are constraints on how this organization can partner with a community and engage with their ongoing endogenous development process, there are still many communities that will happily work with them because there is sufficient alignment for them to form a functional and mutually beneficial partnership. Communities can, and some will, opt out of this particular partnership because the constraints are too much.

      Opting out of “development” or “modernization” on the other hand is a much trickier question. I was talking with some friends last week that had spent some time recently in a very remote indigenous community. They noted how pure and beautiful the people were and thought that it was sad that they wanted to have road built that would connect them to the outside world, and that they wanted to get some government or NGO development projects in town since it had been 20+ years since they had outside assistance. On one hand, I get it, we can all easily lament the progress of others because we know the problems that it can bring. But, unless we are willing to act on this “if we had only known then what we know now” attitude and drop out of our modern world and go live in one of these ‘undeveloped’ and ‘pure’ villages, then we must recognize the subtle hypocrisy we hold that would keep these people in a sort of cultural zoo. WE want them to live uncorrupted by the modern world, but we are unwilling to forego potable water, modern medicine, 24-hour electricity, TV, automobiles, and so forth. So why should we want or hope that others would opt out of the choice we ourselves have made to live in a community or society that is ‘developed’ in this way?

      When you look at the kinds of projects most development organizations do, it seems clear that the problem isn’t one of communities wishing they could opt out, but one of demand outstripping supply. Typical development objectives include: reducing infant mortality, eliminating human trafficking and slavery, combating malaria, providing shelter/water/recovery following a natural disaster, enabling access to credit and business training to those excluded from the formal banking sector, offering training to help farmers increase yield, improving childhood nutrition, building infrastructure to improve access to markets. Last week I was visiting a project that helped very economically poor families with severely handicapped children gain access to therapies that improved the functionality of their children’s bodies and minds. The mothers of these children would never dream of opting out of access to modern physical therapy. And I think they would be confused if I were to ask ‘but isn’t this physical therapy for your child really just a reflection of the needs and demands of outsiders?’

      As for the source of of problems that poor communities face, well, let’s just say that the problems are not new – they certainly predated the industrial revolution and emergence of the modern economy with its reliance on fossil fuels and excessive consumption. While there may be some problems caused by climate change and the modernization of the outside world, I think a longer view is more helpful. For almost all of human history, we lived without the benefits (yes, and drawbacks and costs) of development. We were all poor. We all lacked potable water, modern medicine, were subject to local cultural norms that may or may not have fully protected the now recognized rights of women and children (and handicapped and deformed and …), etc. I think it is easy to romanticize early pre-modern life – and yes, there are certainly some beautiful things about the small bands of people who continue to live in ways that seem to predate most modern changes, but the world has largely pursued ‘development’ because most people don’t like living in ‘undeveloped’ conditions. I don’t think that development is foisted onto to people – although I do think that the development process would be much better for everybody if the reality of participation in the partnerships that pursue it better matched the rhetoric used.

      Your final question on whether or not development is Pareto improving is another tough one. It seems that with any change, there are almost always losers. If a health post opens up in a village, most people will benefit, but the local person who provided traditional medical care will probably lose. If a microfinance NGO starts operating in a village providing reasonably priced access to credit, many will gain, but the local moneylender will probably lose. Okay, those are easy examples and a bit self-serving. Let’s say a road enables access to markets for the farmers, but at the same time makes it easy to bring in processed foods. The new shop owner will win, the farmers will win, and presumably the consumers of the new goods win because they are exercising their choice as people to spend their limited resources on these goods, but…does the community win as tooth decay, heart disease, and diabetes increase? Hard to say.

      I appreciate your comments and questions.

  3. June 12, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

    Thank you for your clear and concise answer.

    However, I believe that the answers still require a much deeper level of interrogation -if they are to move beyond simple clichés that preserve the status quo.

    You have also answered on a number of different “levels” which I shall try to separate and summarise -for clarity. However, ultimately, all these issues are interconnected.

    1. Organisational Pragmatics:
    Yes indeed, modern society is becoming a nexus of (or a power struggle between) competing organisations -all of which push their own agendas with little place for the individual except as a cog within that organisation. Kenneth Galbraith studied the functioning of such systems in several of his books -particularly the “New Industrial State”. I think the efficiency of the currently highly developed “military-industrial-edutainment” complex is not in doubt. Nor is its popularity -indeed, it spends billions on both developing its products and systems (through both private and public research) and in promoting its own interests (both covertly and openly through advertising, news media, entertainment and education systems). Like any self-preserving (organic) system, it is highly sensitive to threats to its own survival -and is thus highly adaptable. However, like any expanding system it is liable to make errors which may be inconvenient (or life threatening) to itself. As Galbraith points out -the best motivation for working within a system is the idea that one can encourage it to “adapt” to one’s own personal goals. So yes, many communities will perhaps accept the offer of cooperation -all of which helps promote the system and perhaps modify it slightly. Indeed, one suspects this is how the colonial process started in the first place -with indigenous communities being offered “help and protection” in dealing with their competitors. The disastrous effects of the resulting destruction of local cultures is still being felt, several hundreds of years later. In my view, the balance of power between the various parties involved means the recipients cannot be offered a truly “free” choice. Indeed, as the environmental and political problems (including the war on terror) hot up -we might even ask if the citizens of the “first world’ are being offered a fair and open choice regarding the way their own society is being organised and run.

    2. The Homogeneous “we” (and the excluded middle)
    Strangely enough, until the fall of Communist Russia lead to the development of a (somewhat neo-fascist) “deterministic” western “Pragmatic Realism” -West-Eurocentric culture was largely based on the “romantic/classic” dialectic (offering a choice between chaotic/emotional/subjective or ordered/objective/rational aesthetics) in various mixtures or oppositions. So, indeed, one must be wary of the myth of the “noble savage” just as one must be wary of the myth of inevitable, ubiquitous and homogenous “progress”. Particularly, one should be careful not to assume that one’s own emotions and beliefs are shared by all people -especially those who may have other cultural backgrounds (if there are any left). So just because you and perhaps your friends are hooked on the geegaws of modern society, that is no reason to assume that everybody else is. One might also ask if life is trully such a “binary” (yes/no) system as the western cultural tradition promotes. Is it really such a “take it all or leave it all” choice? Can individuals or communities (in practice) actually choose the level of (technological) development they wish -without buying into the whole socio-economic package? I personally suspect that the answer is (as indeed you so sadly suggest) “no”. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the war on terror is actually a continuation of the war on communism -both of which may possibly be a structural part of our socio-economic system which continually needs to entrap new consumers in order to fund the continual expansion of the system (with all the global destruction of culture and natural resources that this implies). The “development” business -like the “education” and the “entertainment” business would then simply be apparently benign parts of a promotional system that (from the very beginning of the colonial process) is prepared to use every trick in the book (including force) to ensure that it is accepted. The stick and the carrot is a very old methodology. However, earlier feudal systems were not so efficiently organised on a global scale as now

    .4. From “culture” into “lifestyle”
    Apart from not being at home with jargon such as “Pareto improving” -I guess your examples are pretty cogent. The problem then lies with the interpretation. Interestingly, it is my experience that those participating in the NGO “development industry” have virtually no understanding of the value of “culture”. Indeed, understanding “culture” is a massive problem in a global society dedicated to the destruction of “culture” as a living set of local responses to local conditions and the transformation of culture into “lifestyle”, the commercial exploitation of the decontextualised trappings of a once functional social system. Indeed, in a “culture-less” (money based) system the loss of traditional medicines and foodstuffs is merely another chance for commercial exploitation. The increase in disease due to poor nutrition through the introduction of commercial (lifestyle) food products only helps support the medical industry -and the lack of income to pay for these importations are another business opportunity for the educators to move in and teach more appropriate (modern) survival skills. In such a nihilistic materialistic system it becomes virtually impossible to understand the emotional (and cognitive) aspects the loss of a traditional way of life might bring. I am not trying to romanticise these cultural effects: I believe that, for example, “bio-diversity” is increasingly being understood as an essential condition to physical life by providing redundant organisms that can continue to support the physical system if current “essential” organisms should become extinct. Similarly, I strongly suspect that “cultural diversity” is equally essential in providing conceptual redundancy when current (global) belief systems are proven to create an unsustainable physical system. Your concept of “objective” and voluntary” development -in my view undermines conceptual diversity -and is therefore (in my view) a form of collective suicide.

  4. June 12, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    Sorry, somehow I seem to have lost “3”. Here it is 🙂

    3. Abstraction and Specificity.

    The use of “Transcendental Nonsense” is a well practised technique, I understand. In a serious discussion one should therefore be careful to separate the levels of argument and not lump everything together in abstractions that can then be accepted or rejected arbitrarily because nobody knows what they actually mean in practice. So do you mean that “poverty” (however you define it) is an “objective” state that is independent of context -or that poverty is a relative state which is dependant on its context? Of course it is easy (and dangerous) to romanticise these things -but then surely it is equally bad to be blind to way the evolution of “developed” society affects the living conditions of those who do not participate. For a group of people addicted to the “advantages” of their system it is difficult to imagine the different cultural aesthetics associated with different “lifestyles” (in a fundamental sense). As perhaps many “religious” aesthetes may have known, “poverty” is not just being “poor” it can also imply “freedom” because one is not so deeply embedded in the network of constraints and competing aims you mentioned earlier. This is why I phrased my question in terms of a “right”. To look at the problems of “development” more practically, one does not need to go to remote rural areas. Most western cities have ghettos of poverty -which get “cleaned up” as soon as the commercial developers feel they can make a killing in the process. So my question also asks, what “right” does a human being have to live (in their own way) on a “minimum” income (however obtained) without being “moved on” by those who can make a profit from “developing” the area? It seems from your answer that you cannot understand the level to which modern society manipulates the illusion of free choice to actually reduce freedom and promote enslavement to the embodiment of middle class values as manifest in the military-industrial-edutainment complex. In my view (and experience) many items and comments on the BBC news website, for example, show a rising dissenchantment with the lack of freedom in modern society. Specifically, I remember after the international bank collapse, many frugal people complaining of how they were forced to pay the price of a systematic abuse by commercial banks. Can you actually deny that the global media propagate a profligate lifestyle (in the trivial sense) and that indeed, the survival of our consumerist society is dependant on this continuing? Galbraith (and perhaps others) have charted how western governments manipulate the money supply in order to promote consumer spending and fuel the system. This is not a voluntary communal “development” -it is government complicity in the creation of a ubiquitous socio-political system that needs (and promotes) useless consumption in order to survive.

  5. June 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

    Hi Aaron. Along with Jennifer, I welcome you back. I think it’s difficult to use the word “participation” with taking on board the frame that one party owns the activity, and the other is “participating”. Similarly, phrases like “top down” or “bottom up”, aside from the awfulness of THAT metaphor, imply a direction of command… in a situation where any kind of command is inappropriate, and unlikely to be heeded. I’ve replaced that in my own thinking with the idea of negotiation. We have two parties. Each has interests. Each has a view. We need to negotiate a robust and mutually beneficial agreement. (The robustness comes out of the mutual benefit.)

    The best text I’ve found on this is “Getting To Yes” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_to_YES but there are a couple of other texts which are not far behind, and much funnier. One of these is Herb Cohen’s “You can negotiate anything.” He defines negotiation here: http://www.herbcohenonline.com/negotiation.htm. He’s deeper than his persona suggestions. The core message, to me, is that we are always negotiating, and the way in which we negotiate reveals–whether we like it or not–who we are. Another is the lawyer Gerry Spence’s How to Argue and Win Every Time. This is a summary. http://attitudeadjustment.tripod.com/Books/Argue.htm Again, don’t judge the book by its title. Spence defended Karen Silkwood and Earth First! founder Davis Foreman, and won a $52m against McDonalds, in favour of a small, family-owned ice cream factory. Spence connects the effectiveness of argumentation to being truthful, ethical and just. The third book of the unconventional books is The War of the Flea, about guerrilla warfare. Sometimes in development, we are the guerrillas; sometimes the communities. Either way, its important to understand when guerrilla tactics are being used, or are required. Example, one weakness that states have to guerrilla forces is that they public set a timetable. Similarly, programs can go awry when they set deadlines for their project… but the community has all the time in the world.

    Anyway, this is turning it into a blog post, so I shall stop here, and write that blog post.

    • June 15, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

      Thanks David,

      It is good to hear your voice as well. I appreciate your comment and the framework of negotiation as an alternative to participation. I think it can go a long way, although it should be noted that the power differential between most communities and most development organizations strongly skews the negotiating power in favor of the development organization, which then must make a conscious and explicit effort to share that power – i.e. enable a higher degree of participation than the community could “win” through straight negotiation of interests which may or may not be fully aligned.


  1. Facilitating What? « Bottom Up Thinking - June 6, 2011

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